what is flow

What are flowtoys?

To me, "flow toys" are any objects that inspire movement, dance and exploration. I consider my bicycle, snowboard, skates and even my broom to be flowtoys, but most of my current designs are inspired by dance, fire spinning, martial arts and other expressive movement cultures that are becoming increasingly popular.

I am driven to explore my world and share with others the things that fascinate me. Establishing Flowtoys facilitates that endeavor. Since 1997 I've been designing my own performance gear and light-up toys and have refined the various Flowtoys systems to produce a variety of glow toys that are affordable and durable enough to keep up with my tendency to push the limits of anything I get my hands on.

Exploring the natural flow of the physical world through these and other devices has translated into every aspect of my life. The constant challenge and satisfaction of finding my flow in movement has made me feel in tune and in flow with the world around me. I hope my designs will bring you the years of joy and personal development they have brought me, and continue to inspire new ways to flow each time you use them.

--Sean von Stade, founder, flowtoys

Flow philosophy

The concept of "flow" as it relates to movement and as a state of mind has existed throughout history. Ancient samurai, zen masters, pioneering psychologists and modern athletes link excellence and happiness with achieving a state of flow. Social scientist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has researched and written extensively about how to derive real happiness moment-by-moment and experience the true richness of living in his book entitled "Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience". In reference to meeting physical, psychological and social challenges, martial artist and philosopher Bruce Lee simply said, "Be like water."

In the physical environment, flow refers to efficiency and fluidity, smooth, curving, circular movements, continuity and conservation of energy. One thing is common across all perspectives on flow: finding it changes life in positive ways.

To flow is to challenge oneself

Flow can be described as a state of deep enjoyment, complete absorption and total concentration. This state can be often attained while meditating, driving, at work or at play, It is a reason why people jog, do yoga or practice Tai-Chi. An athlete exhibits mental flow in her focus and physical flow in her refined movements. A reader reaches a state of flow when he is completely absorbed in his book and oblivious to anything outside its pages. An accountant or programmer is in flow when she is thinking in numbers and code, accomplishing her work with all her ability.

According to Csikszentmihalyi, a state of flow is reached when one's skill is equal to the challenge at hand. This is facilitated by self-governing activities like bicycling, where one can always cycle at his own maximum ability, or dancing and manipulating skill toys, like poi, staff, hoop or flow-wand.

While spinning and dance share many similarities with martial arts, there are key differences. In traditional martial arts, there are the limiting objectives of attack and defense, and established form and tradition. When dancing and spinning for the sake of flow, whether using traditional nunchaku, modern fire-poi, or just our bodies, the goal is to keep moving and exploring the physical universe. The only limits are our own physical abilities, imagination and the laws of nature. We can constantly challenge ourselves by exploring new planes, adding circles or changing our grip. Instead of practice, training and the execution of a predetermined series of moves, we are exploring, experimenting and playing with the physical universe.

In the absence of combat or the need for daily self-defense, many modern day martial artists are motivating their practice towards performance and perfection in the execution of form and style. While an established practice is a means of honing skills and achieving proficiency, being able to complete a set of moves perfectly is hardly ever the endgame of any practice. The journey, the physical and mental challenge and the state of mind achieved when one is fully engaged are what spur many martial artists, spinners and dancers alike.

To flow is to play

In his book "The Way of Aikido" (an excellent quick read), George Leonard explains flow and its role in a successful and happy life in terms of play:

What are we doing in the dojo? We might have first come to aikido for self-defense or fitness or balance. But after a few months these considerations fade away. We are doing it, with all that it entails – strenuous exertion, pain, close calls, occasional injury, along with years and years of what you might call "hard work" –for the sheer delight of it. We are playing. Other things can be explained in terms of play, but play, being primordial, can't be explained in terms of other things. Play precedes culture. It extends beyond the rational, beyond abstraction, beyond matter. Play in short, is irreducible. Let's simply say that play is whatever absorbs us fully, whatever creates purpose and order, whatever involves us in as much meaningful interaction as possible.

One's body is a miniature universe. The evolution of the physical universe has involved the same sorts of interactions as those within the body; the almost impossibly delicate balance of force, close calls, near brushes with disaster. No wonder then that our best myths and dramas as well as our best games involve precarious moments of suspense during which all seem lost and then, somehow, against all odds, is saved.

Could it be that the universe itself is a vast conspiracy to maximize play? If so, how sad it is, as we leave childhood behind, that we are taught in countless explicit and implicit ways to work hard rather than to play joyfully. We find ourselves in imprisoned on an iron rack of contingencies. We are taught to do one thing only to achieve another thing. Study hard so that you'll get good grade. Get good grade so that you'll get into a good college. Get into a good college so that you'll get a good job. Get a good job and work hard so that you can have the good things in life. By the time you get the "good things" however, you can barely remember how to play. Aikido summons all of us, whether we do aikido or not, to play or to keep playing from childhood to old age, to seek out the possibilities of play in every aspect of living– in what we call "work", in love and sex, in relationships with family and friends, even in taking a walk around the block. The strange thing is that when we approach an activity in the spirit of play, joy, and primarily for its own sake, we are likely to achieve not only the greatest happiness, but also the best results, the most enduring success.
--George Leonard

To flow is to expand your mind and increase your brain power

The connection between our body and our mind is undeniable: a sore back can make you grumpy, general discomfort inhibits focus and concentration, poor health can cause depression, your whole being is a complicated and integrated system of body, mind and spirit.

Studies have proven a direct link between learning movement skills, like juggling or dance, and cognitive reasoning. Study groups have shown significant increase in test scores, while other studies indicate that the neural networks that are built up to form "muscle memory" are also used by the brain to process information.

"Muscle memory" is a term used to describe what happens when you practice a movement until it becomes instinctive. If you do something often enough, like tying your shoes, your brain will actually create a network of neurons specifically for that task, so you can do it without distracting the rest of your brain. This new neural network is also applied to other tasks when it's not busy.

In short, by engaging in any new practice, you add networks to your brain, which increase your processing power!

Here's the way I see it. Our brains are made up of neurons, most of them dormant. Throughout our lives these neurons connect to each other to form the working part of our brain. This happens in an integrated way, forming a neural network that might resemble a sea-sponge. As we integrate new experiences, dormant neurons become active by making connections between already active neurons. I think of this as new roads being built in my town that enable me to save time and energy whenever I'm running errands. Of course there are downsides to having more roads in your town, but this doesn't apply to your brain because it is almost 100% neural tissue.

As long as I'm on the topic of neural networks, I'd like point out something I find absolutely wonderful. If you look at an image of a neural network, a satellite image of all the man-made light on earth at night, and a star map of the known universe, you will find striking similarities. You can also find this fundamental structure in many other places in nature, certain types of mold and fungus, sunlight on the surface of a pool, cobwebs - a wonderful example of how interconnected everything in our universe seems to be.

To flow is to live

In reference to self-improvement and dealing with problems:

Never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete. - Buckminster Fuller

Don't ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and then go and do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive - Howard Thurman

Remember, this is your one precious life. It's okay to take risks. The world is a safe place where everything happens in perfect synchronicity. The more we breathe, live in balance, and respect nature and ourselves, the more likely we will be in the right place at the right time, all the time. - Unknown

And if all that isn't enough to take me away from this computer and get on with my latest pursuit, here's a quote made famous by Nelson Mandela that I've always found very true and inspiring, if a bit hard to swallow:

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small doesn't serve the world. There's nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We are born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It's not just in some of us, it's in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others. - Marianne Williamson